Fewer hits make for blah summer

Piracy, World Cup take away from B.O.

HONG KONG — For a place best known for pumping out action films, the Hong Kong box office is seeing appallingly little action this summer.

Record unemployment rates, fewer movie releases and a nagging piracy problem have kept moviegoers ensconced at home with their cheap DVD or VCD rentals, rather than in the more expensive environs of movie theaters.

“Summer usually accounts for one-third of total box office but this year, you have to take one month out for the World Cup, and you don’t have a lot of fast-selling Hong Kong films, so the situation is serious,” says Woody Tsung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association (MPIA). “This summer has to be the worst in 10 years for Hong Kong.”

The past three months saw a string of mainly ghost-related and comedic releases but even the local hit of the summer didn’t generate any high-flying numbers — and certainly nothing comparable to last year’s record-breaking $7.7 million gross by “Shaolin Soccer.” “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts”, a romantic comedy helmed by Johnnie To and collaborator Wai Ka-fai and starring actress Sammi Cheng, took in $2.7 million. The largest grossing film so far this year, in fact, has only raked in $2.8 million and that was another Sammi Cheng starrer, “Marry a Rich Man,” released before summer.

Even the top overseas summer releases drew modest crowds: “Minority Report” grossed $2.9 million, “Men In Black II” $2.7 million.

In all, from the beginning of June to August 22, box office receipts for local films slumped 55 percent from last summer, to $10.1 million, according to the MPIA. Overseas box office receipts also dropped, down 45 percent to $15.4 million. Even the number of local movies produced is expected to be significantly lower than last year. Says Tsung. “If you’re an investor in this economic climate, you’ll want to be conservative.”

Amid this box office slump, moves have been made to change this unhappy trend. Intent to lure people back into cinemas, 51 of the territory’s 60 cinemas have slashed ticket prices from between $6.40 and $9 to $3.20 twice a week for eight weeks beginning earlier this month (Sept. 2).

Moviegoers have so far responded in kind; ticket sales the first Tuesday and Wednesday of the promotion shot up more than 110 percent. “This should build attendance, as the outlook for the fall films is not that compelling,” says Bob Vallone, general manager of UA Cinemas. “We can’t wait for the Christmas films to open, to breathe some life in the box office.”

Still, some industry veterans believe box office numbers won’t rise until the release of the highly anticipated film “Hero,” by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, expected next year.

Trying to tackle the problem from another angle, the Federation of Hong Kong Film Workers — formed this year — is holding a forum on Sept. 18 to discuss methods to revive the troubled sector. Among the items on its agenda: how best to lobby the Chinese government to stop lumping Hong Kong films among ‘foreign’ films, which are typically subjected to the mainland’s strict quota system. The forum will also look to the local government for more assistance.

In 1999 the government set up a $12.1 million Film Development Fund, which helps subsidize training, improve special effects and sponsor films to travel to overseas festivals. But in a place renowned for its sense of entrepreneurial spirit and self-sufficiency, critics are wary of turning to the government.

As an editorial in the English daily South China Morning Post opined: “What the film industry needs most is new ideas, not handouts.” True enough. But at this point, it can also be argued that Hong Kong needs any help it can get.

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